David Beckham’s “Poshification”

Researchers from  University of Manchester recently announced that David Beckham has “poshed up” his accent since moving the the United States (pun probably intended). Given that Beckham is one of the biggest sports stars in the world, it’s fairly easy to independently confirm or refute the validity such impressions. For reference, here is an interview with a young Beckham in 1994:

And here is a video of Beckham discussing the end of his L.A. Galaxy career:

Obviously, a number of things seem to have changed about Beckham’s speech in the intervening years. In the first minute or so of the 1994 interview, he pronounces the word “like” with a glottal-stop for /k/, a very Cockney feature which he would probably avoid in the U.S. In 1994, he likewise pronounces the word “about” with a vowel that is close to a monophthong (“abaht“), while in America, he pronounces similar words like “proud” and “around” with a diphthong (əɹæʊnd or əɹaʊnd). Connoisseurs of Cockney will find other changes, I’m sure.

General American English is a rather conservative accent, to the extent that GenAm vowels arguably resemble early-to-mid-20th-Century Received Pronunciation vowels somewhat more closely than, say, Cockney’s do. So I think what the researchers may be getting at here is that by accommodating slightly to American speech patterns, Beckham is in some sense bringing his accent more in line with RP.

But I’m not so sure this always equates to “poshness.” For example, one of the markers the researchers studied was the rate at which Beckham drops his h’s:

The research revealed that David dropped the H in words such as “him” and “has” 80% of the time before the move to the US, but only 20% of the time afterwards.

Mr Boorman said it was “clear that Becks, once a broader Cockney, nowadays speaks with more of a standard English accent”.

“In fact, he’s even hyper-correcting himself, because he puts Hs into words when it’s not really required – in America, they use the H sound more, which explains how he acquired it.

“But my guess is that his dropping of those Cockney vowels was linked to his ambassadorial role for the Olympics and his subsequent high social status.”

It’s worth pointing out that h-dropping is not quite the working-class shibboleth in London that it once was. The great Paul Kerswill pointed this out in a lecture two years ago, in reference to Multicultural British English. In 21st-Century London, in fact, one could argue that h-dropping is becoming more passé than “lower-class.”

Regardless, it’s interesting to note the points in which “Americanizing” one’s speech equates to “poshing it up.” Has anyone followed Beckham’s speech enough over the years to comment?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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19 Responses to David Beckham’s “Poshification”

  1. dw says:

    He still has /f/ in “months”.

    • Pete says:

      His grammar still doesn’t sound particularly “posh” to me (“we was”, “there’s been a lot of exceptional work been done”, etc.)

  2. Ed says:

    I have a few thoughts.

    1 I don’t know David Beckham but he doesn’t strike me as the sort who would deliberately change his accent. I hear a significant change between the two videos. I think that this shows that 19 is not too old for your accent to alter naturally.

    2 I think that a glottal stop for final /k/ is quite common in England, but for some reason it doesn’t carry the same stigma as a glottal stop for /t/. Speculating, glottal replacement for /t/ is most stigmatised when it’s in the middle of a word, and this never happens for /k/ mid-word. This might be linked to the lower stigma.

    To give one academic reference, Petyt noticed glottal stops for /k/ in West Yorkshire (1985, p.147).

    3 Bechham was in Manchester for 10 years. Was there any Mancunian influence on his speech? Maybe a video clip for 2003 would be a good halfway point. Some people’s speech is more changeable than others’.

  3. Ellen K. says:

    Coming from the perspective of no familiarity with him (as a speaker).

    Listening to the first sample, my thought was that one probably wouldn’t hear that accent in the U.S. That is, I would expect a speaker with the accent to accommodate some to American listeners. Especially if residing in the U.S. (And not necessarily consciously.)

    Listening to the second sample, my impression is that’s what he does. It gives that impression rather than sounding posh.

    • Ellen K. says:

      Oh yeah, I meant to add, it would be interesting to hear a recent interview in a British context (preferably in Britain) to hear if his accent is different than speaking in the U.S. to U.S. media.

  4. Steve Bronfman says:

    He used to sound like the village idiot but to his credit he speaks well now. Well done DB.

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  7. Victor Hugenay says:

    Where does the pronunciation of view as few come from? Isn’t that also some sort of Cockney thing?

  8. Alai Mac Erc says:

    Interesting comment on h-dropping moving “up the social scale” — I think John Wells had a post about that a while ago. I’ve noticed the likes of “adere” and “abor” in what are otherwise “modern RP” (i.e., upscale Southern English) accents, which to my ear sound truly jarring. (I’m not sure if they’re innovative to that dialect, or have indeed “moved in” from other social groups — I might have simply not noticed them. Or perhaps Cockneys don’t use “adhere” much anyway.)

    Doubtless in 30 years’ time, anyone still pronouncing those h’s will be considered a bumpkin from the regional fringes, as has historically (‘istorically?) occurred with rhoticity and w/wh merger.

    • dw says:

      /h/-less pronunciations or “adhere” and “abhor” are quite normal, regardless of education, on both sides of the Atlantic — if anything I would say they are even more common in the US. They reflect the phonetic awkwardness of a cluster of the voiced stop with /h/. Another common realization is the voiced [ɦ], which may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from zero.

      You think that someone distinguishing “which” from “witch” would sound like a country bumpkin? To me, that would (in England) suggest a professional speaker such as a newsreader, barrister, or clergyman.

      • Alai Mac Erc says:

        I have the strong impression that they’re relatively new to RP. Or at least to “high-register RP”. If not, I must just be experiencing an extreme-delayed “take”. Other accents I’m perfectly willing to believe I’ve just not noticed the lack — pretty much including all US realizations.

        Some years ago the w/wh non-merger did seem to be, as you suggest, a “careful speakers” trait, or a “pedantic affect” if you prefer. But the merger seems to be becoming so highly normalised that, on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve seen comments mocking a w/wh distinction, including attributing to such speakers a hypercorrected (w->wh) caricature that I’ve never heard anyone actually say in the first place. Those may be isolated incidents, so it would probably have been more correct to say “as has historically occurred with rhoticity, and may be presently occurring with wh-merger”.

        • dw says:

          Can you point to an example?

        • Alai Mac Erc says:

          Doesn’t Family Guy have a running “joke” about “over-pronouncing” the h in “whip”? (i.e., pronouncing it at all, which seems curiously reminiscent of RP characterisation of rhotic accents “hyper-pronouncing” r.)

          There was also a BBC2 sketch show that featured a “Scots” accent with w -> wh throughout.

  9. PJ says:

    David Beckham’s accent has gradually changed over the years; it’s not as if he suddenly changed from the accent on video 1 to the accent on video 2. This is quite understandable when you consider he started out as a working class kid and then became a millionaire footballer, moving in celebrity circles and frequently in the media spotlight (with a celebrity wife). Over time, his accent has obviously mellowed and he has become more well-spoken. In his younger days he was ridiculed for not being able to spell his own job title (he wrote it “Profeshunal footballer” or something like that), and he’s clearly made steps to move away from that kind of image. Notice how his visual image has changed over the years too, moulding himself into a style icon (“Brand Beckahm”) haha. Fair play to him.

    Playing for Manchester Utd had nothing to do with it; I doubt he had much contact with the general population during that time, and most likely lived in a mansion far away from the city. Plus, he doesn’t exhibit any Mancunian influence. He still very much has a London accent, it’s just not as extreme.

    Top bloke and all-round good guy though!

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